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Body Counts and Counterinsurgency

At first blush this Wall Street Journal article by Michael Phillips, one of their excellent military correspondents, might be cause for concern. It reports, after all, on the revival of “body counts” in Afghanistan — a metric of counterinsurgency success that was discredited in Vietnam.

But in the current context the release of information on enemy casualties actually makes sense. Too often media reports out of Afghanistan focus only on coalition or civilian casualties. By releasing numbers on enemy killed, U.S. forces can counter the wrongful impressions that the enemy is defeating our troops or that our troops are killing more civilians than enemy combatants.

The use of body counts only becomes problematic if they are viewed by commanders as a key metric of success. That’s what happened in Vietnam where General Westmoreland focused U.S. strategy on achieving the mythical “crossover point” where communist casualties would outpace their ability to field replacements. That point was never reached because the communists had a substantial population pool and a willingness to suffer losses that would be considered unthinkable for Americans. The same is true with the Taliban and related groups. We are never going to kill more of them than they can replace.

The key to success in any counterinsurgency is securing the population, not wiping out the enemy. But casualty counts can tell you something about the conduct of tactical operations even if they are of not much use for broader strategic assessments. Senior American commanders at Central Command, NATO, and in Kabul are well aware of this. They are not suppressing “body counts” (as some European contingents do) but nor are they fixated on them. So far I’d say they’ve struck the right balance.


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